By decluttering your home and workspace you can improve your mental health and efficiency

Jan 18, 2024 | 0 comments

By Daryl Austin

Improved mental health is on the agenda for many people in 2024 and decluttering and organizing is the preferred method of accomplishing it for a lot of them.

One reason disorganization is so often tied to mental health is because it can have a negative impact on the way we see ourselves and the lives we lead. The studied downsides of living in a disorganized or cluttered environment include memory impediment, poor eating habits, an increased chance of developing mood disorders, and decreased impulse control. There’s also a link between the stress hormone cortisol and living in a cluttered space and a likelihood that “clutter and disorganization can lead to chronic anxiety disorders in some people,” says Daniel Levitin, a behavioral neuroscientist at McGill University in Montreal, Canada.

A Journal of Environmental Psychology study also shows that “clutter can lower feelings of well-being, happiness, and the safety and security that a person derives from being in their personal spaces,” says Catherine Roster, a co-author of the study and a professor at the Anderson School of Management at the University of New Mexico, Albuquerque.

Part of the reason for this is that many of us recognize that “our homes may be messy and cluttered because we feel overwhelmed and unorganized mentally,” says Natalie Christine Dattilo, a Boston-based clinical psychologist and instructor at Harvard Medical School.

Disorganization can also decrease one’s ability to focus and make decisions. Other research that Roster also co-authored, shows that working in a disorganized environment can quickly lead to feelings of exhaustion.

“Clutter and disorganization brings a loss of productivity that is difficult to quantify,” says Levitin. He points to the amount of time people lose looking for lost items, missing appointments, or falling behind at work or school because of disordered living. “The average person likely loses 5 percent of their time due to disorganization,” he says. “Take your annual salary, multiply that by 5 percent, and you can measure what disorganization may be costing you.”

While some purported mental health benefits related to removing clutter and becoming organized may be overstated (contrary to popular opinion, organization probably won’t help with diagnosed depression, for instance), science still supports several advantages of maintaining a tidy space.

Mental (and physical) benefits of getting organized
Joseph Ferrari, a distinguished professor of psychology at DePaul University and one of the most recognized scholars on clutter and disorganization research, says that nearly every mental health downside that comes from disorganization and clutter can be improved by getting organized. “You’ll feel less exhaustion, enhance your productivity at the office, and greatly improve the quality of your life if you can learn how to declutter and become organized,” he says.

Neha Khorana, an Atlanta-based board-certified clinical psychologist who specializes in mental health benefits related to cleaning and organizing, agrees. She adds that getting organized can also improve anxiety-related symptoms, “as being disorganized is associated with higher levels of anxiety.”

Tidy homes have been found to be a predictor of physical health as well. “Those whose houses are cleaner are more active and generally have better physical health,” says Libby Sander, an assistant professor of organizational behavior at Bond University in Australia. Part of this is due to organized people being better at managing their time, but it’s also because research demonstrates that a lack of clutter can help improve one’s diet. “Studies show an association between excess clutter and excess weight,” says Dattilo.

Getting organized has also been shown to decrease one’s stress levels, increase personal efficiency, and even improve sleep.

Another studied advantage of getting organized may be improving the quality of one’s relationships. Dattilo explains that relationships can be negatively impacted when too much clutter affects communication or distracts one’s brain from filtering important cues from their partner. Research shows this can cause others to feel ignored, misunderstood, or unimportant.

Where and how to begin
Though many people recognize and desire the mental and physical health benefits that come from becoming more organized, some don’t know where to begin.

“I advise starting small,” says Dattilo. “It’s easy to become overwhelmed if you try to tackle an entire room or even a closet, so you can set yourself up for success by starting with a single drawer, bookshelf, or the kitchen pantry.” She also suggests making organization more enjoyable by listening to music or an audiobook while you’re at it and to “spend time in your newly organized space after to let yourself enjoy it.”

Khorana recommends setting aside specific amounts of time to declutter and organize, and Roster suggests imagining how good it will feel to have an organized space as motivation to get started. “Think about how you could utilize the space for another purpose that would make your life better or help you be more productive,” she says. She also recommends enlisting support, if needed. “A family member, friend, or professional organizer can help if you don’t know where to begin,” she says.

When it comes to the process of organizing, Julie Morgenstern, a professional organizer and author of Organizing from the Inside Out, advises sorting items into categories such as keep, toss, and relocate. She suggests having a place for every item you want to keep, purging items you won’t use, and storing elsewhere sentimental or seasonal items or décor you don’t need to access often. “Also consider off-site storage if you have items you can’t bear to part with such as archival tax records, college papers, memorabilia, and extra furniture,” she says. “It will get the items out of the house without the trauma of permanently purging them.”

When making such sorting decisions, Ferrari recommends against the popular advice of first feeling an item in one’s hand to see whether it brings joy. “Studies show that touching something actually makes you feel more attached to it, which is why retailers try to get shoppers to hold shelved items to induce purchasing,” he explains. Instead, he says it’s better to logically assess whether to keep something or not without the added emotion that comes from holding it.

Sander says it’s also important to remember that becoming organized includes digital decluttering as well. “Unsubscribe from things you don’t read, delete emails, make a new folder and move just a few emails or documents a day,” she advises. “Just giving yourself five minutes a day to get organized will get a lot done over the course of a few weeks and will help build habits to stay organized.”

Dattilo says that organization and decluttering “require decision-making, emotion regulation, prioritization, and patience,” but that the process can be learned and improved with practice. “When we take care of our home in an intentional and loving way,” she says, “we send an important message to ourselves that we are worth the time and effort it takes.”
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Credit: National Geographic

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